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October 2014 | Volume 72 | Number 2
Instruction That Sticks
In all my years teaching poetry in high school, the one practice that students remembered years later was using a portfolio approach that put them in control of their learning. After I explained the curriculum goals for the unit, students brainstormed ways they could accomplish the goals. We worked as a team, collecting poems, reading them together, tearing them apart, and learning how to write about poetry. Students collected their artifacts in a portfolio and wrote an extended reflection on what they had learned. I gave extra credit for writing an original poem. I always asked for someone to donate their portfolio as a model, but no one ever did!
—Timothy Dohrer, director, teacher preparation, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
In my math classes, I use a collaborative strategy called trail run. Partnered students complete a cycle of questions of varying difficulty on content that we've recently studied. Students stop at stations and read multiple-choice questions. They discuss solution methods, and they are then directed to move to another station depending on the answer they chose. Students catch their own mistakes when they realize they've skipped one station or repeated a station they already visited on their "trail."
Strategies like trail run present students with learning tasks of varying difficulty, thus appealing to and challenging all students at once. I've found that such strategies are a better way to differentiate instruction than assigning individual students to less difficult or more difficult tasks.
—Sean Padilla, 7th grade math teacher, School District 102, LaGrange Park, Illinois
Belief statements encourage and motivate my students in an urban school. Each morning, before we begin any work, we recite a belief statement for the week. I read my belief statement about students, and they read the same belief statement about themselves. For example, I read aloud, "I believe I teach the most capable students in our school. You are alert, you are ready to learn, and today you will be successful." My students then read aloud, "I am a capable student. I am alert, I am ready to learn, and today I will be successful." This strategy affirms students' worth and ability and sets the tone for the day.
—Kathleen Foster, teacher, Jennings School District, St. Louis, Missouri
Socratic circles help students understand their reading more deeply. Students interact with the text and have to listen to and build on the views of others. It is a powerful way of teaching that puts the focus on the student. Well-selected texts can ensure that students retain and deepen their knowledge.
—Louise Robinson-Lay, head of curriculum, Berwick Grammar School, Victoria, Australia
When students ask, "Where will I use this in real life?" I show them! For example, when I teach percentage mark-up in math, I invite a relative of mine who works in retail to do a Google Hangout with my students to discuss how she uses this skill in her job every day. It's always more effective to break down the classroom walls and provide authentic experiences.
—Melissa Murphy, math and special education teacher, Belmar Elementary School, Belmar, New Jersey
I collect articles related to the topic being studied. I distribute them—one to each student—and allow five minutes for students to glean at least one interesting fact from their article. Then, one student at a time heads to the flip chart to record his or her interesting fact. (A little creative tension is created when each fact-recorder finishes and chooses the next recorder.) After everyone has had a chance to record his or her fact, we spend class time discussing the new information.
—Marlene Caroselli, retired English teacher, Rochester, New York
Although they are often the first items to get cut when budgets are small and time is short, guided field trips and simulations create learning that lasts for decades. These are the experiences that students recall years later when they think back on their education. Of course, field trips and simulations take planning to ensure that the focus is on the learning goals and not just on getting out of the classroom or doing something different. We don't want students remembering the time they played on the beach; we want them remembering the powerful lesson about Lewis and Clark's exploration and what it must have been like to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. If we invest in the work ahead of time, the payoff can be huge.
—Molly Burger, middle school principal, Saigon South International School, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A common practice that I would remove or greatly diminish in secondary classrooms is the teacher reading aloud or having students take turns reading aloud. I once interviewed a class of students who used both of these methods to read the novels in their 9th grade English class. I expected the students to like the practice because it was easy. Instead, they were frustrated. They preferred to control the pace of their reading, slowing down or rereading when they were confused and speeding up when they were really into a story.
And when students were alternating turns, kids complained about the sometimes painfully slow reading of their peers; they described counting ahead to figure out which paragraph they themselves would be reading and focusing only on that.
I'm not saying there's never a good time for reading aloud to secondary students, but I strongly believe that the vast majority of their reading should be done silently and -independently.
—Jen Zeuli, English language arts coordinator, Chelmsford Public Schools, Chelmsford, Massachusetts
In the cooperative learning practice called jigsaw, the teacher divides a lesson into three parts and then assigns a mixed-ability group of students to study one particular lesson chunk. After students master the material, the teacher reshuffles them to form new jigsaw groups that draw a member from each of the original groups. As each "expert" shares a lesson chunk, the group collaborates to piece together a unified picture of the information.
Jigsaw energizes student learning with its emphasis on fluid movement, flexible groupings, and wide distribution of instruction. Group members must actively listen to and learn from one another, forging greater lines of communication and respect among students of different achievement levels.
Teachers love jigsaw because it enables them to spend less time talking and more time listening to monitor and analyze student learning patterns. Jigsaw helps students realize that it's not just what they learn but also how they learn that matters.
—Joe Hirsch, teacher, Akiba Academy, Dallas, Texas
Students internalize information more effectively when they get physically involved. Dancing, running, and pantomiming are just a few ways that students can participate and contribute creatively in music class. I've found that having students get up out of their seats and move not only guarantees that not a single student falls asleep, but also helps students remember the information.
An even better approach is letting students create movement sequences independently. Just think of the number of connections they're making in their mind and body when they listen to musical passages and translate that sound into movement! I love how this strategy engages students' imaginations and gives them the opportunity to take ownership of the creative process and the final product or performance.
—Monica Holz, elementary music teacher, School District 202, Plainfield, Illinois
One instructional strategy that works for me is alternating brief teacher instruction with student partner practice. For example, suppose I want to teach paragraph writing. I take 10 to 15 minutes to introduce vocabulary and write a model paragraph on the board, explaining what I'm doing as I go along—for example, I explain why sentences should not all begin with "I" or "He/She" and suggest expressions that can make a sentence more interesting. If possible, I use different colored markers or chalk to highlight verbs, adjectives, and so on. Then students practice with a partner, writing their own paragraph while I move around the room and offer suggestions and encouragement. Once they're finished, each pair of students reads its paragraph to another pair of students, and they provide feedback to each other. Finally, I assign another paragraph as homework using a similar topic so that students can practice the vocabulary and writing strategies again. The next day, I ask several students to write their paragraphs on the board. I point out the topic sentence, correct use of vocabulary, word order, concluding sentence, and so on.
—Judith Cale, high school world languages teacher, Cherry Creek Schools, Aurora, Colorado
As a physical education teacher, I have found that it's best not to overwhelm students with too much information at one time. Instead, I introduce only one or two concepts at a time. This small-step approach, which allows students to master basic skills before intermediate and advanced ones, encourages a natural skill progression.
I've learned to avoid the instructional strategy of asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students. It's not practical to spend half of a 30-minute physical education class lecturing, demonstrating, and questioning students. My goal is to give clear and concise directions and then let students be as active as possible.
—Brendan Breault, K-5 physical education teacher, W. A. Johnson School, Bensenville, Illinois
I have used the Four A's Text Protocol, developed by the National School Reform Faculty, with students from 3rd grade all the way up to college faculty. The protocol provides a safe and conflict-free way to discuss nonfiction text that might be controversial. The four A's are
I remind the group what each A represents, and we systematically cover each of these elements before moving to the next round of discussion. Our discussion ground rules emphasize the need to respect the thoughts of each person so that we can get all viewpoints out there in a safe and supportive learning environment.
—Colleen Swain, professor and director, School of Education, University of Texas at Tyler
I have had impressive results in teaching sight words by using explicit, direct instruction to introduce new words, combined with games to provide repetition and practice. In the first 10 minutes of the lesson, we introduce new words and practice weak words. In the next 20 minutes, the students play sight words games, such as sight words fishing, in small groups.
The website www.sightwords.com has a fine collection of research-based sight words, teaching techniques, and customizable, printable classroom materials that reduce preparation time. Everything on the website is downloadable and free to users. Teachers can also e-mail materials to parents so they can make and play the sight word games with their children to give them extra reinforcement opportunities at home. The materials are great for school volunteers to use with students as well.
—Betsy Primm, tutor and educational consultant, Atlanta, Georgia
Learning through internships is a unique educational strategy aimed at making education more relevant and engaging. The Big Picture Learning approach to internships is not intended to consign students to a vocational track that steers them away from college, but rather to engage youth in rigorous, project-based learning within a 21st century learning context.
Every student completes project work that is relevant and useful to the internship site; in this way, the experience benefits the mentor and internship site as well as providing real-world experience for the student intern. A school-based educator assists the student intern and mentor in developing authentic projects. However, these internships are not simply about the product that is created or the service that is rendered. On a deeper level, they're about children and adolescents learning to become mature, thoughtful adults.
—Andrew Frishman, director of program development, Big Picture Learning, Providence, Rhode Island
We can increase student achievement by teaching students to be systems thinkers—to step back and examine the dynamics of a system and the interrelationships among its parts. For example, we teach students to create behavior-over-time graphs (BOTG), which are visual tools that show how elements in a system change over time. These graphs reinforce skills like sequencing, identifying cause and effect relationships, retelling, interpreting patterns, and citing evidence to support inferences.
Preschool and elementary children can create simple graphs to show the ups and downs of a storybook character's levels of happiness. Middle grades students can depict changes in endangered species populations or the quality of habitat. Students can also use the graphs as self-assessment tools to show their own progress over time.
—Tracy Benson, president, Waters Foundation Systems Thinking Group, Tucson, Arizona
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